Right now I’m experiencing my first Teacher’s Convention in my current district (last year I attended a different district’s Convention). For those not in the know, Convention is when as many teachers as possible in your area get together and attend a variety of sessions ideally geared towards improving your practice. Basically it’s job training.
You find a wide range of opinions on Convention. Most people grump a little bit at the necessity of spending a lot of time in sessions they’re not sure will help them. Some people find a few great sessions that give you a great set of strategies to immediately help in the classroom. And a few always manage to have no fun at all, totally feeling like there’s no point to their being there.
Strangely, I found myself dreading it this year.
For those people who don’t know me, I’m usually the guy that is gung-ho for the new and cool strategies, excited to listen to someone explaining something I don’t yet fully understand about teaching. But this year I found myself not being that person coming up to today.
Part of my issue with today is my chosen specialization. Believe it or not, there’s not a great preponderance of music teachers out there (I know, I’ll give you all a second to sit down and recover from the shock). As such, conventions like this are not exactly confronted with a mountain of incentives to offer sessions exclusively targeted at music teachers, especially specialized music teachers such as band (myself included).
It’s not that I won’t find anything to do that will help me. I had a very nice session on website design today and got some valuable work done on my school-related blog that I keep trying to develop with my students. There was another session related to brain engagement that was fascinating and did in fact give me a few great ideas for classroom techniques.
But not having anything that directly applies to my discipline leaves me feeling a bit… left out. I know it’s not by intention. The trouble is that if someone like myself inquires as to the possibilities of getting a dedicated band session, the answer is invariably, “Great! Why don’t you come up with something and we’ll give you a spot!” (or some variation thereof, the details waver depending on the area, time, and space available)
While discussing this phenomenon with a colleague, I said that what I wanted was not to pontificate to a room of people (cue the realization of situational irony based on what I’m doing right now), but to have someone much more experienced than I am come and show me something about my profession I don’t already know. My colleague shot back with, “Well, I’d be more interested in hearing ‘What A First-Year Band Teacher Learned in University’ than another session on how to engage special needs students!”
This floored me. Not that turning down a session on special needs, or computers, or anything was a big shock because some people aren’t called to work in those fields. But the idea that I had something that could be so interesting that 5-10 of my colleagues would come in, sit down, and listen/take notes to my inexperienced experiences was a shift for me.
I’ve always been good at what I set my mind to. But a large part of my development as both an artist and a teacher has been to set any ego and sense of myself as ‘the best’ at something in the background, so I get the absolute most benefit out of any situation without my self-worth getting in the way.
I think in large part that’s the best thing about this sort of professional development: taking things you already have and applying them in new ways. None of the techniques I’m going to learn in these sessions are something I can’t figure out on my own using my own skills and lots of time/hard work. But the encouragement of a better-experienced person goes a long way towards making that job easier for me. And I think I have to realize that I can do that for others too.
It’s taken me a large chunk of a day to come to terms with what I want to write here, but like many people right now, I have to talk about it in some way just to deal with it.
Everyone has heard by now of the murders of 20 children and more adults and teachers in Connecticut. Everyone is equally horrified, from the President of the United States, to our Canadian Prime Minister, to the oldest grandparent in the most isolated of our rural Canadian villages. I share all of that horror.
As a teacher, of course, I have a particular terror, disgust, and sorrow at this sort of event. My administrator actually was the one who first alerted staff members at my school that this terrible event had happened. It was particularly fresh in his and our minds because we had just had a lockdown drill the day before.
The scary thing when I was reading the news reports was the fact that, based on what little information was there, most teachers at the school had reacted fairly well and professionally like you are supposed to in a lockdown situation. They had gathered students in corners and away from windows and doors as soon as the emergency became clear. And yet, 20 children lie dead today.
I don’t care to talk about the person who decided to murder more than 20 people, most of them children. I also don’t want to intrude on the grief of anyone who is particularly close to a senseless tragedy like this one. I finally decided that what I wanted to talk about was words. What a particular set of them mean about the situation we find ourselves in today. These are a set of words that should not exist.
I know that those two words are normal, everyday English terms. A noun indicating a place of learning for young people, and a verb meaning the act of firing some sort of projectile at high speeds. But their strict, literal meanings pale beside the terrifying reality of the expression entire.
The fact that in our society, we have a two-word term explicitly designed to express a single reality of a person or persons walking into a school and using firearms to injure or kill defenseless children and teachers is horrific. The mere substance of this expression would tell the most skeptical alien observer that in our society, the act of someone committing murder by firearms in a school is common enough to warrant its own expression. I can think of no worse indictment of the way we handle weapons or the way in which humans are capable of violence.
Now, some might argue that the term is merely descriptive, but if we were searching for a descriptive term, we would probably say something like “the shooting that occurred in a school”. Of course, in proper English grammar, the term ‘school shooting’ should mean that someone was shooting an entire school (building), not the innocents within. But we all know that that is not the meaning, that those two words conjure up a nightmare scenario of pain and fear.
My anger and sorrow are all twisted up with each other right now as I hear more and more on the news. There are many news pundits and politicians and special interest groups all talking about what sort of action needs to be taken. Some people continue to say that today, when the grief is still fresh, is not a time to open debates on gun control or related matters. I echo the sentiments I’ve heard from several corners: today is not the day. The day for that was after Virginia Tech, after Colombine, after Taber, after any of the numerous tragedies with this disgusting label of ‘school shooting’. It’s already too late for the children murdered in Connecticut, and it’s too late for that argument; what matters is stopping it from happening again, not posturing over rights and legal intricacies. What matters is making sure that we have done our best to eliminate the need for parents to lose children to a murderer in a school, to eliminate the expression ‘school shooting’ from its necessary niche.
I wish profoundly that there was no need in our language for that particular expression. I wish that 20 children who now will never get their Christmas with the family or grow up to change the world did not have to die at the hands of a killer. Mostly, I just… wish.
I’d like to finish by relating a story that helps me articulate how I feel about my students if anything like this were to happen to me. It’s human nature to imagine yourself in this situation, and my imagination quails at the task, so I latch on to other experiences to help me work it out. It isn’t my story, just one that a friend of mine who also is a teacher told me about a lockdown at their school (obviously, all identities and locations are not mentioned here):
The school goes into lockdown. As it transpires, there is a question of whether or not there is an actual threat to the school, so this is not a drill. The students are all gathered and hidden, the doors locked, and the lights turned off. No one is quite sure what is going on.
Then, a young girl says to my friend, “Miss, if they break in here, I’m going to die.”
My friend looks at her and says, now quite emotional, “Honey, they have to get through me first.”
Thankfully, within an hour or so, it was resolved, and everyone got their happy ending, but the situation and conversation stuck with my friend, and it resonates deeply with how I feel about my job.
As sad as yesterday’s events were, let us also remember today the courage and swift action of the teachers in the school, as well as the police, that saved the lives of children. Because when it comes right down to it, they made the same choice and affirmation that my friend did, and that I would in that situation.
I love these kids, and if something ever happens, it’s not going to happen without me doing everything that I can to make them safe. Because I want a world where there doesn’t have to be a term of ‘school shooting’. I want that for any kids that I will have, and I want that for every single student that walks into my classroom.
All of my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I cannot imagine the depth of their agony.
Today, the world of music, and particularly jazz, has suffered a profound loss. Dave Brubeck died today.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who will be writing an obituary or memory today. Dave Brubeck was one of the most influential artists to ever grace jazz music, and I feel fairly safe in saying that we will not see his like very soon again, or perhaps ever.
When I was younger and beginning my jazz experience, a relative gave me a fantastic set of CDs: Ken Burns “Jazz” collection, 5 CDs with some of the most classic recordings ever made. Right in the middle of disc 4, I hit “Take Five”. I was blown away. My natural inclination when I listen to music is to move or conduct along with it (you only have to ask my long-suffering wife about how much of an embarrassment I can be when I’m really enjoying a song, particularly in public).
But here was a song that I couldn’t easily fit to that sort of thing. I was 13 years old, and the concept of jazz itself was just starting to percolate through to my brain, let alone the idea of there being a viable 5/4 pattern.
Yet somehow it was catchy, in spite of the strangeness. Not catchy in the way that a modern, electro-synthesized pop song is catchy, with stale chord patterns and dumbed-down rhythmic ostinati capable of easy reproduction by any prospective listener. Catchy in a mysterious way, a song that leaves you trying to grasp at the fleeting echoes of recognition you get from a well-constructed tune, while still being unable to articulate the specifics. A song that displays talent, artistry, and technical mastery of one’s craft.
The solos, particularly Morello’s tasteful, rhythmically challenging drums, were another revelation. The internal sense of rhythm and melody required to generate the sort of polyrhythmic patterns that 5/4 generates spoke to me in an inspirational way, something to aspire towards.
From that moment on, I hunted down more Brubeck recordings, with some of my favourites being the ones that were strangest in conception or furthest from what one might call the ‘standards’. “Unsquare Dance”, from the album “Time Further Out”, never fails to put a smile of wonder on my face as the Quartet dances through shifting rhythms in a 7/4 feel that drives listeners insane with the tantalizing closeness to the swaddling comfort of 4/4 while being resolutely it’s own strange space.
Brubeck’s piano playing was always filled with emotion and technical mastery. Countless concerts over a career that spanned more than 6 decades (quite the milestone in jazz music) reinforced his well-deserved reputation as one of the all-time greats in the genre. He performed and created music for many celebrities and events, including the Pope’s 1987 visit to San Francisco. His sons followed him into music, with many well-deserved accolades to their names as well.
Dave Brubeck cannot be replaced or equalled. He was his own person who loved his art and gave everything he had to it. What other kind of character could keep up with concerts and tours well into his 8th decade of life? My life is not the only one that Brubeck’s tireless efforts made a mark on, and I am not the only one saddened by his passing.
But amidst the sadness, I can’t deny that Dave Brubeck worked extremely hard, and that work made the world a better place. Our world is better for having had his life in it. And like anyone else, he deserves to rest and have some time off from the magnificent efforts in his life, free of pain and worry.
Thanks, Dave. Rest in peace.
We just finished the first ‘report card season’, as well as our parent/teacher interviews, at my school. It’s one of the most important times of the year, in my opinion, both for the teachers and for the students and families.
As teachers, it’s really great to try and keep in contact with the parents of your students, both for good reasons and bad. Parents want to know if the child is being disruptive to the class, but they want to know even more that their child is doing really well. Of course, contacting every single parent as much as they would like to isn’t always feasible.
I teach music, band, and Language Arts to Grade 6-9 students. This means that, instead of having 3 or 4 homeroom classes that I rotate through for several different lessons a week, I actually have about 200 students that I see on a weekly basis. There’s not enough time in my year to actually call all of those people, or e-mail all of them with regular check-ins. So, I really value my parent/teacher interview time.
There’s a fairly commonly held idea that says dealing with recalcitrant students and parents both is a big part of a teacher’s job. While it is true that dealing with student behaviour is a not-insignificant portion of my job, I’ve never had a situation where I think that the parents are a ‘problem’ or ‘obstacle’. I keep seeing this borne out in my conversations with parents, both in electronic form as well as more personal phone or face-to-face contact. Every set of parents I’ve talked to so far just wants their child to do well.
The above comic sort of sums up this feeling. There’s an element of truth here : our modern society tends to place a lot less emphasis on the responsibility of the student than it used to. However, I’m glad to say that I have not yet experienced anything even close to the above.
I think one of the things that has really helped me in this regard is that I’m continuously trying to stress it in terms of ‘helping’. If I have a student that’s doing poorly, I try and focus the discussion on what I can do, and what the family can do, to help with bringing out the potential of the student. I believe that I shouldn’t have anybody failing anything, and even the most argumentative and shut-down student still has the potential to do well.
When I look at it this way, I am reminded of another concept that I think is really important: my job actually isn’t to teach students things. My job is to teach you how to learn. I will have any given student in a class for at most four years, if they take music, then band 7, 8, and 9. That’s actually not that much time. How many people actually are 100% prepared for life when they leave post-secondary after a 4-year degree? The concepts that I teach you in four years may not last. But what you will use every day for the rest of your life is your ability to learn.
And that is why I do what I do.
December. Oh, December.
As a music educator and sometime musician myself, December is packed, each and every year. Whether it’s the Christmas concert for the students or the local band/orchestra, or even all of the community theatre that pops up, December is a killer.
How do I deal with this? Well, mostly by conserving laziness.
I’m a person who does things very much all-out. I go and go and go when I’m at work. This means that when I get home, I generally crash quite a bit. Whether it’s with a book or a TV show I like or a video game, I hoard my lazy days like a treasure vault and dole them out to myself one small weekend chunk at a time.
Right now on the go (and for the past month, basically), I’ve had:
1. Report cards
2. Parent-Teacher Interviews
3. A local theatrical company’s musical production
4. Beginner band start-up
5. Preparing a Christmas concert
6. Starting the fund-raising for my band program
As such, I really treasure the times when I get time to withdraw into my own little world and not have to deal with a lot of details or people with requests or problems to be dealt with. I see the amount of time that I need to take to balance out my life, and then I look at those master teachers and great people that I look up to for inspiration…
Time after time I see people who simply keep going regardless of how much rest they have at this time of year. I really wonder how much truth there is in the adage that they are like ducks: “calm on top, but paddling like crazy underneath”. Every time I ask them what they’re doing, it seems like I learn another trick for dealing with the multiple levels of busy-ness that our modern society seems perfectly adapted to throwing at anyone and everything.
I think I may have a few years to go before I actually am as adapted as I want to be to this month of December.
But, only 24 days until Christmas!
P.S. Let me know what everyone thinks of the new layout! I’m trying to make it more user-friendly after a couple of months of fiddling and turn it into something closer to a real website.
So, today in one of my classes, I had that magical moment where a student goes “Mr. Jazzman, you’re one of my favourite teachers this year.” Your heart swells with pride, and the heavens burst forth with song and rejoicing, etc., etc.
Of course, it doesn’t really mean anything.
Not in the sense that the student doesn’t actually like you. They do. However, this early in the year, it’s kind of like that love you have for the new car. The love that will instantly vanish in a white-hot fire of rage the first time some small yet critical part fails, requiring a $500 repair bill and a week of public transit. Students are the same way with teachers. And yes, I did just compare teachers to automobiles. Personally, I like to imagine myself as a Ferrari.
The student does in fact like you as a teacher, but it’s something that probably relies heavily on the fact that you haven’t had to come down on them like the wrath of heaven for some indiscretion, or they haven’t gotten roadblocked by a few of your tasks yet.
All the same, it is wonderful to hear. Something you strive for as a teacher is to make that positive impact for just one person, and forming that bond where a student feels comfortable enough to tell you that you are their ‘favourite’ means you’ve made substantial progress. Declarations of admiration, affection, friendship, and love are rarely negative, regardless of circumstances.
Of course, there’s the opposite extreme that can tell you just as much about your status with a student. The usual phrase is something like “That’s not fair!” or, in higher levels, “This is ______” (insert offensive statement of your choice). Usually this happens right after enacting some sort of management procedure, particularly one where the student is required to have a detention or suspension.
And this, too, can mean almost nothing. Again, not in the sense that the student isn’t angry with you (they definitely are), but in the sense that their anger can be a positive sign. Often as teachers we face students with difficult home lives and a hazy at best understanding of discipline and responsibility. Although angry at being called out for their transgressions, many students actually respect you more for being ‘tough’ with them.
I’ve told many colleagues and sometimes students (depending on the scenario and age level) that it is not my job to be their friend. Whether they ‘like’ me or not is irrelevant. What matters to me is that for today and all the future days that I will have that student in my class, their learning, growth, and safety are my primary concerns. Whether that means the student grumps their way through a year with me and emerges with a sliver more of respect for personal responsibility or ends up beaming profusely because I inspired them to pursue music as a career path, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they grew.
Of course, as a first-year teacher, I will gladly take every single “favourite” status label I can get. They can make a nice mental stack to go through every time I resist the urge to ship some individuals off to Siberia in a cargo box.